Sunday, September 16, 2012

Flick of the Day: To Rome With Love

Of all the directors and actors to feature on the Daily Flick since its inception, Woody Allen has featured more than most, with no fewer than 5 of his films on show. Over the last few years, his work has largely been a trek through Europe and it has not been without success. London, Barcelona, and Paris have all starred and his latest film, To Rome With Love takes place in the eternal city. While each of the films from Woody's European sojourn have had their moments, it would be difficult to say they are in the same league as some of his earlier work yet average Woody Allen is still a step above many film makers.
As much a collection of disparate stories set against the backdrop of modern Rome as it is a contiguous tale, Allen has crafted his usual concoction of comedy, love and life with this film. There are four distinct tales which do not interact beyond their setting. Allen is Jerry, a retired avant garde opera director visiting the city with his wife played by the brilliant Judy Davis who discovers that his daughter's new father-in-law is a talented vocalist who can only sing in the shower. Roberto Benigni is an average Roman businessman who suddenly becomes inexplicably famous. Meanwhile a young Italian couple Antonio and Milly arrive in the city on their honeymoon and through a series of bizarre events find Penelope Cruz's prostitute pretending to be Antonio's wife in front of his relatives. Finally in perhaps the best story, Alec Baldwin is an American architect who while searching for the street he lived on thirty years previously meets a younger version of himself in the shape of Jesse Eisenberg who is lusting after his girlfriend's flirtatious friend Monica, played by Ellen Page.
While this is nowhere near classic era Woody Allen and indeed is a step down from last year's Midnight in Paris, there is still much to enjoy. Allen can still write some great one liners and it is a pleasure to see him on the big screen again as an actor for the first time since 2006's Scoop. As per usual he has assembled a fine cast with Eisenberg, Davis and Cruz getting some of the best lines.
Like Match Point and Midnight in Paris before it, this film doesn't live in a Rome that many Romans will recognise with little of the real world allowed to pollute our screens. No opportunity to film a scene in front of some Roman landmark is missed. While this method suited the storyline of Midnight in Paris which was about how people idealise places and times in their mind, it can at times be jarring here, felling too much like a foreigner's idealised vision of Rome.
An enjoyable if disjointed film then but a funny one at that. The combination of 4 different stories leaves the film lacking in a continuity of tone and without any real centre. Still, it has all the usual charm and humour of Allen to carry it through. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Flick of the Day: Lawless

Australian director John Hillcoat burst onto the scene with his ultra violent yet soulful take on the Western, The Proposition from a script by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, The sombre tone of that film was perfectly suited to his next film, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's masterful apocalyptic novel The Road. That film had its moments but suffered from the sheer difficulty of recreating the unique prose of McCarthy. His latest work is another adaptation, this time of a true story, and another collaboration with Nick Cave. Lawless is a tale of bootlegging and in the backwoods of Virginia during the prohibition era and is today's flick of the day.
In the depths of the great depression, the effects of prohibition have yet to reach Franklin County, Virginia where the three Bondurant brothers make a quiet living selling their home distilled moonshine. Forrest, played by the man of the moment Tom Hardy, is tough and taciturn with an air of invincibility and the natural leader of the three. Howard, played by Australian Jason Clarke, is a feckless rogue but possessed of an immense strength and propensity for violence. Finally there is the runt of the litter, Jack, played by everybody's favourite  punching bag Shia LaBeouf is ambitious and has a penchant for the gangster lifestyle. Into this Hank Williams song steps the law in the form of pantomime villain Charlie Rakes. I say pantomime because Guy Pearce has somewhat inexplicably chose to portray Charlie with all the depth and realism of the wicked witch of the west. Alas, more of that anon, back to the tale. Rakes is determined to stamp out the illegal liquor business unless they are willing to grease the wheels of justice. Suffice as to say, Forrest is not willing to back down and sets the family on a collision course with the vicious Rakes.
It would be wrong to criticise Hillcoat too much for Lawless flaws, for there is much to enjoy here. Not least of which is Tom Hardy's solid and impressive performance as the clan leader determined not to back down in the face of the terrorist tactics of Charlie Rakes. LaBeouf gets a lot of criticism as an actor, much of it deserved however here he is perfectly matched with the role of Jack, a brash young man who dreams of the big time. The great Gary Oldman is criminally underused as an urban gangster who buys the brother's booze, and that's it really, that is all he does in the movie. Oh wait, he fires a Thompson gun once and swings a shovel. Jessica Chastain is better served as the mysterious woman with a past who comes into the Bondurant's lives. I've enjoyed her work since last year's Take Shelter and she is strong again in an underwritten role.
Now inevitably we must come to Guy Pearce and his "acting". I don't quite know why he chose to play the brutish Charlie Rakes with all the subtlety of a kick to the scrotum but there you go. He hams it up throughout, flouncing across the screen with a voice that sounds not dissimilar to one of the lepers in Ben Hur while committing acts of savagery and having an obsession with cleanliness. He is the worst thing about the film but necessary to drive the plot forward.
That said, this is by no means a bad film. It is entertaining throughout and the Virginia setting has an authenticity sadly lacking in Michael Mann's dull Public Enemies which deals with the same period. The tale of the Bondurant clan is of course a true story something which in and off itself makes the film more interesting. Hillcoat knows how to frame a shot and the scenery of the Virginia backwoods is eerily beautiful.  This accompanied by the well choreographed bouts of violence creates a film that is nothing if not stylish and feels of the period. A worthy endeavour.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Flick of the Day: The Limey

Steven Soderbergh is one of that rare breed of film-makers that can very neatly divide opinion amongst cinema goers. While undoubtedly a talented visual artist, there is a tendency in some of his weakest films toward avant garde film making for the sake of it rather than to break new ground as part of telling a story such as the frankly dull The Good German or Full Frontal. You either find his various stylistic flourishes as a necessary part of the storytelling process or else something that is irritatingly superfluous. Think of the  use of yellow and blue filters to signify the difference between the US and Mexico in perhaps his best film, 2000's Traffic. It was smart but it could also be jarring. He is at his best when focusing on character driven drama such as last year's Contagion or today's flick of the day, The Limey, an old-school revenge flick from 1999.
Terence Stamp in one of his best roles in years plays Wilson, a hardened criminal and a man that exudes the possibility of violence at all times is the Limey of the title. An Englishman abroad, he arrives in Los Angeles after being released from his latest stretch in prison in the UK in search of the truth in relation to the recent death of his estranged daughter, Jenny. He soon makes contact with with he friend Eduardo, played by the always useful character actor Luis Guzman. Wilson befriends Eduardo and seeks his help for filling in the blanks around Jenny's death in a supposed car accident. He has his own suspicions however centred around Jenny's long term boyfriend and millionaire record producer Terry Valentine, played by that other 60's icon Peter Fonda. With Eduardo's help Wilson is soon doing battle with some of the most dangerous elements of the L.A underworld as he fights his way to Terry Valentine and the truth about his daughters death.
Soderbergh's Limey is as much about personal redemption as it is about its tale of revenge. While Wilson is relentless in his pursuit of those closest to his daughter's untimely death, he also comes to realise that whatever his actions now in seeking revenge, he was never there for his daughter when she needed him. It is this realisation that he is at least partially culpable for her death which drives the film toward its conclusion. He comes to see that he has wasted away his life and his relationship with his daughter for a life of crime but by the end is prepared to live with the consequences which have made him an angry man. Stamp channels this natural anger into his portrayal of Wilson and gives a masterful performance of a violent man bent on revenge who is not without a human side, something highlighted in some well chosen flash backs of Stamp as a young man from 1968's Poor Cow. This contrast between the different side of Wilson's character highlight the subtlety of Stamp's performance.
While not a commercial success on its release, this is a more a comment on the lack of star power in a cast headlined by Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda than on the relative quality of the film. This is a first rate thriller with actors at the top of their game but like so many of Soderbergh's films, it asks a lot of an audience to pay attention to a film that is more meditative than action packed. That said. for the effort and attention paid, there is a little gem of a movie on offer. While Stamp dominates every scene from beginning to end, special praise must go to Guzman for his measured portrayal of an ex-con who wants to get his life back on track while also doing what he can for his lost friend. Fonda is also strong as a feckless womaniser with a lack of backbone and a fondness of whining as Valentine. It is the contrast between the strict discipline of Wilson and the lazy arrogance of Valentine which drive the film to its conclusion.
All in all, this is another Soderbergh contradiction, the quiet revenge movie. It is at times violent but often more meditative and sombre in tone. That said, it is always entertaining and is packed with some fine performances as a journey to the dark side of Los Angeles. Well worth a viewing.

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